All is calm and bright in Susan Creighton’s Edenton home, despite the grey drizzle outside. She settles into a cozy leather chair in front of her Christmas tree, already decorated and lit up in honor of the town’s annual Christmas Candlelight Tour, which is to begin that evening. By all rights her surroundings should be nearly frantic with activity, since she is co-chairing the event – but the only thing on her agenda is few last-minute arrangements made by phone.
“It’s like a wedding,” she confides. They’ve done all the planning, and now it’s going to happen, whether they are completely ready or not. On this weekend, the town’s population swells, its inns and restaurants fill, and its citizens welcome visitors from around the state.
Edenton is a village seated comfortably on the edge of the westernmost part of the Albemarle Sound. Its water, Spanish moss and historic houses are what initially drew Susan to the town almost 40 years ago. To her, they echoed her native Savannah. It seems that every resident plays some part in the weekend’s events – volunteers have decorated the bridge with Christmas lights, baked massive batches of cookies, offered their horses and carriages and buses for free tourist transportation, and set up tents to shelter the candlelight crowds. For the days of the tour the entire town has been polished to a warm glow and the historic buildings draped in period-appropriate decorations by the Edenton Garden Club. Since the official tour doesn't start until 4pm, there is plenty of opportunity to explore daylight hours.
The Penelope Barker House is at the very end of main street, right on the water. Part museum, part gift shop and part tourism center, here you will find all the information you need for navigating the hamlet's streets. You can also register for the tour here and sample the Edenton Historical Commission’s famous, deceptively sweet-but-potent eggnog from a silver punchbowl. Susan admits they have had to restrict guests to one small glass after several "incidents."
Follow the waterfront to find the Roanoke River Lighthouse, restored to its former glory and decorated simply for the bachelor’s Christmas that was common amongst lighthouse keepers. Across the street is the symmetrical garden of the Cupola House, built in 1758 by a land agent who turned out to be corrupt and was kidnapped by an outraged band of clients who held him in the next town over until he promised to return the stolen funds (such are the newsy tidbits you will hear if you take the locally-guided trolley tour).
Swing open the heavy door of the Cupola House and the first thing that will brush your senses is the scents – first cloves and oranges, then steaming bowls of the world’s best wassail, then fresh greenery. If Christmas has a smell, this is it. The home has been restored to reflect the time of its more upstanding owner from 1777 onwards, Doctor Dickinson. Depending on the time of day you visit, live music may meet you as you walk up the stairs to view the Dickinson family’s recreated living space.
Just down the road, past the old church on the left and the post office on the right, is the Iredell House, home of the youngest man nominated to the original Supreme Court by George Washington. Tour the house, listen in on some skillful harpsichord playing and grab a snack off the Groaning Board (an antique buffet christened after the groaning sound it makes when laden with goodies).
Folks hungry for a full meal may want to stop in at the old drugstore on Broad Street for a sandwich and catching up on local goings-on from whoever is sitting next to you at the counter. Back near the waterfront, the historic courthouse hosts tours during daylight hours and caroling after dark. As the darkness falls and the caroling begins, the Candlelight Tour officially kicks off as well.
Trams escort visitors to the selected neighborhood (in 2017, it was homes on the sound – 2018 will feature historic homes near West Queen Street). Once there, a trail of people and flickering luminaries lead guests on the short walk from house to house.
When the tour started almost 40 years ago, a grand total of 75 people trekked through the selected abodes. In recent years they have seen as many as 2,300 in one weekend. While other events focus on Edenton’s history, this tour invites visitors into homes for a showcase of decorations, hospitality and visiting.
The houses on display range from tidy cottages to sprawling estates. Whatever the size, guests are welcomed by the homeowner (or a proxy) and filed through a designated loop to admire the greenery, lights and the marks of individuality that set each home apart. In one house, a 70-piece snow village lines a hallway on a series of tables – it’s nearing metropolis status, complete with a Starbucks and a taco shop. In other there are pieces of art painted by the owner or collected from the Hudson River Valley. For one homeowner, antiques reign supreme, while for the next, travel relics line the shelves. One home’s outstanding feature was around back: a chicken coop seasonably strung with lights.
While wandering, visitors may bump into Susan or her co-chair Clara Stage soaking in the beauty of their surroundings and thoroughly queen-beeing the situation.
Despite the flurry of activity that is December, kicking off the holiday season with the people of Edenton is well worth the time – and the drive. The town itself is reminiscent of the tabletop snow village – a capsule of old-fashioned buildings with light shining from each window, and people who care for one another and their town in a way that is at once outmoded and timeless. Sure, it is a normal town. There are quibbles and potholes and complaints, but there is also a quality that not many places can duplicate. There is a warmth radiating from the homes and people so merry that guests wish they could carry them with them through the holiday season and into the brave new year ahead.
The 2018 Christmas Candlelight Tour and historic open houses will be held on Dec. 14-15. Tickets are $30 in advance, $35 on the days of the tour with discounts available for groups of 10 or more. For additional information, visit ehcnc.org or visitedenton.com/december-events.